It is hard not to feel some sympathy for schools these days.
Whilst the core function and role of a school is arguably to educate students, increasingly teachers, Principals and Board of Trustees are having to manage an ever growing list of complex tasks such as:
- Supporting the emotional well being and mental health of students and staff
- Providing a semi-enterprise level IT infrastructure where virtually all activities now require fast and reliable internet access
- Overseeing the security of the campus, both physical and digital, to keep ever-more sensitive data protected and out of the way of prying hands and eyes
- Managing the workload of teachers who already feel over-worked and underpaid
- Promoting a healthy balance of activity and diet for increasingly busy students
- The list goes on!
To that end, it’s easy to see why educators frequently choose simplicity over complexity when it comes to the digital tools they use in their jobs. This has often resulted in the stealthy use of Shadow IT in schools: the un-authorized use of online platforms by
teachers and administrators in an attempt to make their lives easier. I wrote about Shadow IT and the helpful suggestions of how to approach this constructively from the Chief Digital Officer of the New Zealand Government and I recently had a back-and-forth dialogue with an educator about this very topic which has prompted me to write this blog post.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
When I first left my career in IT to undertake a Secondary Teaching Diploma I was thrust back into the world of being a student once more and I realized very quickly that while I knew a lot about technology, I didn’t know the first thing about classroom behaviour management, curriculum design or best practice around assessment. I literally didn’t know what I needed to know and was very reliant on the great tutors who guided me through the pathway to acquire the skills and knowledge to become an effective educator.
In a similar sense, many experienced educators are 100% focused on being the best they can in the classroom and assisting their students to achieve incredible results and to help with this, they are increasingly collaborating with their colleagues both in, and out, of their own school organisations. This sharing has been accelerated by the rapid adoption of online collaboration platforms such as Office 365 and G Suite for Education meaning the days of teachers swapping USB sticks at Subject Association meetings are long gone. Instead, this has been replaced by the click of a button to send attachments in an email, spin up a website, or hit “share” on that document in the cloud.
However, despite technology making it easier than ever to share and collate digital teaching resources, there is a significant catch to this that many teachers are simply not aware of.
Schools, Not Teachers, Own the Intellectual Property Rights
This reality is something that many teachers simply have never had explained to them or do not understand that any content they create in the course of their employment, be that a unit plan or a creative form of assessment, belongs to their school. As the TKI website explains:
Who owns copyright in a teacher’s or contractor’s original work?
Do not assume that just because you created a work, you can necessarily do anything you like with it. Unless agreed otherwise, the school will own the copyright in any teaching materials that teachers (employees) create during the course of their employment.
Put another way by the Creative Commons Aotearoa TohaToha website (underlined emphasis is mine):
Copyright and Teaching Resources
New Zealand teachers don’t, as employees, hold first ownership of copyright to resources they create in the course of their employment. The 1994 Copyright Act grants first ownership to employers, which in the case of New Zealand schools is the Board of Trustees (BoT). This means that when teachers share resources that they have produced in the course of their employment, they are legally infringing the copyright held by the BoT.
This can cause a great deal of uncertainty for teachers wishing to share and collaborate with teachers at other schools. It can also cause problems when teachers move between schools and wish to take their resources with them.
Now I suspect there is not a teacher alive that didn’t take some of their resources with them when they’ve moved schools and I know that many trainee teachers are actively encouraged to collect and hoard as many unit plans and diverse forms of assessment during their teaching placements as possible, to form the basis of their resources when they land their first job. Similarly, I think most educators see themselves as members of a wider community than just their school and there is a collective sense of comradeship and willingness to help each other – this appeals to the inherent altruistic motivation many teachers possess.
Nevertheless, Board of Trustees, the Chairperson and the Principal should all be thinking very carefully about what their approach is to this potential problem and be prepared to ask some serious questions such as:
- If a teacher leaves with their resources, do they leave a copy at the school for the department/syndicate or their replacement?
- If they have left a copy, is it in an editable format e.g. the digital masters
- Does the school want those resources exiting the organisation and going to be potentially “competing school”?
- This is particularly pertinent in situations where a school may have invested tens of thousands of dollars in professional development for staff in an area of education to become a “differentiator” to attract students and boost roll numbers.
- How does a teacher or the school feel when resources they have created end up branded with a different school / teacher and possibly shown as a best practice exemplar at a conference?
- This classic example of IP theft may sound far fetched but I’ve heard numerous educators describe this exact situation
- If a teacher brings resources into their new school and continues to use them, is the school at risk of using IP belonging to another school? Is there a potential legal remedy against them as a result of this?
Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems that with a little determination and vision, most schools can implement to address both real and perceived risks in this space.
Creative Commons and Document Auditing
There are two approaches that schools typically take, often in conjunction with each other:
- Granting teachers permission to use Creative Commons attribution to their work, thus allowing them to legally share resources and ensuring that the school retains the attribution.
- Effective auditing of electronic resources to ensure they are not openly shared in contravention to school policy.
Creative Commons policies are explained here (again, underline emphasis is mine) and put simply:
A Creative Commons policy gives teachers advance permission to disseminate their resources online for sharing and reuse. The policy also ensures that both the school and the teacher — as well as teachers from around the country and around the world — can continue to use and adapt resources produced by New Zealand teachers in the course of their employment.
As more teaching and learning is done online, these issues around intellectual property are becoming much harder to ignore. A Creative Commons policy is a good way to clarify your school’s position on intellectual property — including first ownership of copyright to teaching resources — which still encouraging sharing and collaboration, which is a core part of the vision of many New Zealand schools.
The above represents a powerful step for schools, empowering educators to collaborate meaningfully with their colleagues in other schools, whilst still ensuring the individual teacher and original school is attributed the copyright. Couched positively for schools, this could be seen as the best form of advertising in the sector, if dozens of school-branded resources are showing up in other schools, reflecting the skills and expertise of the originating school’s teachers.
Nevertheless, all schools, whether they have implemented a Creative Commons Policy or not, will want to ensure compliance when it comes to the sharing of resources and this comes back to the heart of the original question of this blog: do the cloud resources used and favoured by educators closely align with the Board’s priorities of protecting Intellectual Property? Over the last 12 months I’ve spoken with a few IT partners working in schools who shared audits of cloud documents shared externally with the school’s principals resulting in a few shocked expressions.
In Office365 there are extensive, enterprise grade tools to both restrict sharing and also enable thorough audits of document sharing. This support article is particularly good providing a step by step guide about half way down entitled “How to identify resources shared with external users” and in the scenario the following table shows all users in the organization who shared resources with a guest user within a specified date range:
The process of sharing a document can best be seen in this flow chart:
If educators in schools are using Shadow IT and/or sharing resources publicly, even with the best of intentions, they may be unknowingly violating school policy and their terms of employment.
Why Does This All Matter?
When it comes to talking about core role responsibilities, you’re unlikely to ever find a teacher include the protection of intellectual property as being high on their list of priorities. Yet, in the same way that all educators are fundamentally teachers of literacy, they all share a responsibility to not be actively bypassing a school’s security and sharing resources and content in a truly public or anonymous way. When boiled down to it, this is a core part of their employment agreement.
As a result, school leadership teams and Boards of Trustees need to be choosing cloud platforms that achieve the twin goals of:
- Security, compliance and auditing that is easily achievable
- Authorized sharing of content that is enabled in a protected manner
When either of the above are missing, it creates a classic grey area for educators and other school employees to have to navigate with potentially unhelpful results and outcomes. The reality also becomes painfully apparent: the path of least resistance and easiest sharing of content is not always the best one for schools to tread. More than ever, schools need to carefully weigh and consider their choice of platforms and how they protect both the intellectual property of their organisation, as well as their staff from accidentally “over sharing” content into the wider public internet.
This is an opinion piece and does not represent legal advice
The author has previously implemented Creative Commons Policy into an organisation to enable sharing and appropriate attribution